“VANITY FAIR” (2018) Review

“VANITY FAIR” (2018) Review

When I had first heard that the ITV channel and Amazon Studios had plans to adapt William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel, “Vanity Fair”, I must admit that I felt no interest in watching the miniseries. After all, I had already seen four other adaptations, including the BBC’s 1987 production. And I regard the latter as the best version of Thackeray’s novel I had ever seen.

In the end, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch the seven-part miniseries. In a nutshell, “VANITY FAIR” followed the experiences of Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, the social climbing daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer in late Georgian England during and after the Napoleonic Wars. The production also told the story of Becky’s school friend and daughter of a wealthy merchant, Amelia Sedley. The story begins with both young women leaving Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. Becky managed to procure a position as governess to Sir Pitt Crawley, a slightly crude yet friendly baronet. Before leaving for her new position, Becky visits Amelia’s family. She tries to seduce Jos Sedley, Amelia’s wealthy brother and East India Company civil servant. Unfortunately George Osborne, a friend of Jos and son of another wealthy merchant, puts a stop to the budding romance.

While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple becomes ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, George’s own father insists that he dump Amelia and marry a Jamaican heiress. George refuses to do so and thanks to his friend William Dobbin’s urging, marries Amelia. Mr. Osborne ends up disinheriting George. However, the romantic lives of Becky and Amelia take a backseat when history overtakes them and their husbands with the return of Napoleon Bonaparte.

I wish I could say that the 2018 miniseries was the best adaptation of Thackery’s novel I had seen. But it is not. The production had its . . . flaws. One, I disliked its use of the song “All Along the Watchtower” in each episode’s opening credits and other rock and pop tunes during the episodes’ closing credits. They felt so out of place in the miniseries’ production. Yes, I realize that a growing number of period dramas have doing the same. And quite frankly, I detest it. This scenario barely worked in the 2006 movie, “MARIE ANTOINETTE”. Now, this use of pop tunes in period dramas strike me as awkward, ham-fisted, unoriginal and lazy.

I also noticed that producer and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes threw out the younger Pitt Crawley character (Becky’s brother-in-law), kept the Bute Crawley character and transformed him from Becky Sharp’s weak and unlikable uncle-in-law into her brother-in-law. Hughes did the same with the Lady Jane Crawley and Martha Crawley characters. She tossed aside the Lady Jane character and transformed Martha from Becky’s aunt-in-law to sister-in-law. Frankly, I did not care for this. I just could not see characters like Bute and Martha suddenly become sympathetic guardians for Becky and Rawdon’s son in the end. It just did not work for me. I have one last problem with “VANITY FAIR”, but I will get to it later.

I may not regard “VANITY FAIR” as the best adaptation of Thackery’s novel, I cannot deny that it is first-rate. Gwyneth Hughes and director James Strong did an excellent job of bringing the 1848 novel to life on the television screen. Because this adaptation was conveyed in seven episodes, both Hughes and Strong were given the opportunity retell Thackery’s saga without taking too many shortcuts. The miniseries replayed Becky Sharp’s experiences with the Sedley family, George Osbourne, and the Crawley family in great detail. I was especially impressed by the miniseries’ recount of Becky and Amelia’s experiences during the Waterloo campaign – which is the story’s true high point, as far as I am concerned. Also, this adaptation had conveyed George’s experiences during Waterloo with more detail than any other adaptation I have seen.

Aside from the Waterloo sequence, there were other scenes that greatly impressed me. I really enjoyed those scenes that featured the famous Duchess of Richmond’s ball in the fourth episode, “In Which Becky Joins Her Regiment”; Becky’s attempts to woo Jos Sedley in the first episode, “Miss Sharp In The Presence Of The Enemy”; the revelation of Becky’s marriage to Rawdon Crawley in ” “A Quarrel About An Heiress”; and her revelation to Amelia about the truth regarding George in the final episode, “Endings and Beginnings”. There were people who were put off that the series did not end exactly how the novel did – namely the death of Jos, with whom Becky had hooked up in the end. I have to be honest . . . that did not bother me. However, I was amused that Becky’s last line in the miniseries seemed to hint that Jos’ death might be a possibility in the near future.

The production values for “VANITY FAIR” struck me as quite beautiful. I thought Anna Pritchard’s production designs did an excellent job in re-creating both London, the English countryside, Belgium, Germany, India and West Africa between the Regency era and the early 1830s. Not only did I find the miniseries’ production values beautiful, but also Ed Rutherford’s cinematography. His images struck me as not only beautiful, but sharp and colorful. I would not say that Lucinda Wright and Suzie Harman’s costume designs blew my mind. But I cannot deny that I found them rather attractive and serviceable for the narrative’s setting.

One of the production’s real virtues proved to be a very talented cast. “VANITY FAIR” featured some solid performances from it supporting players. Well . . . I would say more than solid. I found the performances of Robert Pugh, Peter Wight, Suranne Jones, Claire Skinner, Mathew Baynton, Sian Clifford, Monica Dolan, and Elizabeth Berrington to be more than solid. In fact, I would say they gave excellent performances. But they were not alone.

Michael Palin, whom I have not seen in a movie or television production in years, gave an amusing narration in each episode as the story’s author William Makepeace Thackeray. Ellie Kendrick gave a very poignant performance as Jane Osborne, who seemed to be caught between her loyalty to her bitter father and her long-suffering sister-in-law. Simon Beale Russell gave a superb, yet ambiguous portrayal of the warm and indulgent John Sedley, who also had a habit of infantilizing his family. Frances de la Tour was deliciously hilarious and entertaining as Becky Sharp’s aunt-in-law and benefactress Lady Matilda Crawley. I could also say the same about Martin Clunes, who gave a very funny performance as the crude, yet lively Sir Pitt Crawley. One last funny performance came from David Fynn, who gave an excellent portrayal of the vain, yet clumsy civil servant, Jos Sedley. Anthony Head gave a skillful performance as the cynical and debauched Lord Styne. I thought Charlie Rowe was superb as the self-involved and arrogant George Osborne. Rowe, whom I recalled as a child actor, practically oozed charm, arrogance and a false sense of superiority in his performance as the shallow George.

I have only seen Johnny Flynn in two roles – including the role of William Dobbin in this production. After seeing “VANITY FAIR”, it seemed that the William Dobbin role seemed tailored fit for him. He gave an excellent performance as the stalwart Army officer who endured years of unrequited love toward Amelia Sedley. Tom Bateman was equally excellent as the charming, yet slightly dense Rawdon Crawley. At first, I thought Bateman would portray Rawdon as this dashing, yet self-confident Army officer. But thanks to his performance, the actor gradually revealed that underneath all that glamour and dash was a man who was not as intelligent as he originally seemed to be. Amelia Sedley has never been a favorite character of mine. Her intense worship of the shallow George has always struck me as irritating. Thanks to Claudia Jessie’s excellent performance, I not only saw Amelia as irritating as usual, but also sympathetic for once.

Television critics had lavished a great deal of praise upon Olivia Cooke as the sharp-witted and manipulative Becky Sharp. In fact, many have labeled her performance as one of the best versions of that character. And honestly? I have to agree. Cooke was more than superb . . . she was triumphant as the cynical governess who used her charms and wit in an attempt to climb the social ladder of late Georgian Britain. I would not claim that Cooke was the best on-screen Becky I have seen, but she was certainly one of the better ones. I have only one minor complaint – I found her portrayal of Becky as a poor parent to her only son rather strident. Becky has always struck me as a cold mother to Rawdon Junior. But instead of cold, Cooke’s Becky seemed to scream in anger every time she was near the boy. I found this heavy-handed and I suspect the real perpetrator behind this was either screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes or director James Strong.

I have a few complaints about “VANITY FAIR”. I will not deny it. But I also cannot deny that despite its few flaws, I thought it was an excellent adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel. Actually, I believe it is one of the better adaptations. “VANITY FAIR” is also one of the best period dramas I have seen from British television in a LONG TIME. And I mean a long time. Most period dramas I have seen in the past decade were either mediocre or somewhere between mediocre and excellent. “VANITY FAIR” is one of the first that has led me to really take notice in years. And I have to credit Gwyneth Hughes’ writing, James Strong’s direction and especially the superb performances from a first-rate cast led by Olivia Cooke. It would be nice to see more period dramas of this quality in the near future.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1870s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set in the 1870s:

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1870s

1. “The Buccaneers” (1995) – Maggie Wadey wrote this excellent adaptation of Edith Wharton’s last novel about four American young women who marry into the British aristocracy is also another big favorite of mine. Directed by Philip Saville, the miniseries starred Carla Gugino, Alison Elliott, Rya Kihlstedt and Mira Sorvino.

2. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1989) – Pierce Brosnan starred in this television adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1872 novel about an Englishman’s journey around the world. Directed by Buzz Kulick, the miniseries co-starred Eric Idle, Julia Nickson and Peter Ustinov.

3. “Lonesome Dove” (1989) – Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones starred in this excellent adaptation of Larry McMurty’s 1985 novel about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Simon Wincer directed.

4. “The Way We Live Now” (2001) – Andrew Davies wrote this television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel about a Central European financier’s impact upon London society. Directed by David Yates, the four-part miniseries starred David Suchet, Matthew Macfayden, Shirley Henderson and Cillian Murphy.

5. “Daniel Deronda” (2002) – Andrew Davies adapted this television adaptation of George Eliot’s 1876 novel. Directed by Tom Hooper, the four-part miniseries starred Hugh Dancy and Romola Garai.

6. “The Sacketts” (1979) – Sam Elliott, Jeff Osterhage and Tom Selleck starred in this television adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s two novels – 1960’s “The Daybreakers” and 1961’s “Sackett”. Robert Totten directed.

7. “The Far Pavilions” (1984) – Ben Cross and Amy Irving starred in this adaptation of M.M. Kaye’s 1978 novel about the star-crossed romance between a British Army officer and a royal princess from Northern India. Peter Duffell directed.

8. “The Woman in White” (1997) – Tara Fitzgerald and Justine Waddell starred in this adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel about two half-sisters caught up in a grand conspiracy over a mysterious woman in white and a family fortune. Tim Fywell directed.

9. “Deadwood” (2004-2006) – Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane starred in HBO’s series about the famous Dakota mining town during the late 1870s. The series was created by David Milch.

10. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (2011) – Romola Garai starred in this adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a London prostitute’s impact upon the lives of a wealthy family. Marc Munden directed.

“THE WAY WEST” (1967) Review

“THE WAY WEST” (1967) Review

Years ago, I had watched a 1952 movie called “THE BIG SKY”. The movie was an adaptation of a novel written by A.B. Guthrie Jr. I eventually learned that Guthrie had used some of the characters featured in “THE BIG SKY” and created a series of novels set between 1830 and the 1880s. One of them was the 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Way West”.

Twenty-eight years after the 1949 novel’s release, Harold Hecht produced an film adaptation of it. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, “THE WAY WEST” told the story about an Oregon-bound wagon train being led west by a former U.S. senator. Throughout the journey, the wagon train emigrants endure weather, accidents, encounters with Native Americans and the usual personal dramas that beset a group of people forced to live with one another over a long period of time. Many film critics have dismissed “THE WAY WEST” over the years, comparing it unfavorably to the 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. I never understood this comparison. The 1962 film was about the history of one family during most of the 19th century West. Out of the film’s five segments – two had focused on members of the family emigrating to the West. “THE WAY WEST” told the story of the members of one Oregon-bound wagon train in the year 1843.

Before one starts speculating over how a film with a 122 minutes running time could tell the story about all members of a wagon train. It cannot. Guthrie’s novel, along with Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann’s screenplay focused on a group of people:

*William Tadock – former U.S. senator and captain of the “Liberty Wagon Train”
*Lije Evans – restless Missouri farmer who decides to move his family to the Oregon Territory at the last moment
*Rebecca Evans – Lije’s pragmatic wife
*Brownie Evans – Lije and Rebecca’s shy son
*Dick Summers – widowed mountain man and guide for the wagon train
*Mr. McBee – Georgia-born farmer hoping to start a peach farm
*Mrs. McBee – wife of Mr. McBee
*Mercy McBee – flirtatious only child of the McBees and the object of Brownie’s desire
*John “Johnnie” Mack – recently married emigrant and object of Mercy’s desire
*Amanda Mack – Johnnie’s sexually frigid bride

There are aspects of “THE WAY WEST” that I found unappealing. One of those aspects proved to be Bronislau Kaper’s score for the film. I found it bombastic, awkward and unmemorable. Enough said. I was also not that impressed by some of the performances found in the film – especially from some of the supporting cast and one of the major leads. And like many other historical or period dramas, “THE WAY WEST” suffered from a few historical inaccuracies. Wagon trains were usually pulled by either oxen or mules. The stock used to convey the “Liberty Wagon Train” from Missouri to Oregon proved to be a hodge podge of horses, mules and oxen. I realize that “THE WAY WEST” is basically a Western about overland travel, but I found the costumes designed by Norma Koch very disappointing. The costumes looked as if they came straight from a warehouse. None of the women wore any layers of petticoats or corsets. And Koch’s costume designs for the McBee family proved to be a real head scratcher. I got the feeling she was trying to convey the family’s background as Georgia dirt farmers barely able to afford the journey to Oregon. Their clothes looked threadbare in compare to their fellow emigrants. And it is a miracle that the McBees did not finish their journey nearly naked. If the McBees were able to afford the journey to Oregon, they could afford to wear better quality clothing than what they wore.

The biggest historical head scratcher occurred midway into the film. During a social gathering between the emigrants and a group of Sioux warriors, one of the emigrants mistook the Sioux leader’s son for a wolf. The emigrant killed the boy and failed to inform the others of the incident. This led the Sioux to later track down the wagon party and demand the killer face justice. Initially, the wagon emigrants refused to comply until they discovered that a very large party of warriors had accompanied the Sioux leader. I am sorry, but I found this scenario improbable. The only times I could recall that many Native Americans gathering at one spot in the history of the American West was at the council for the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and the Battle of Little Bighorn. And considering that the Cheyenne nation were spread out from present-day southern North Dakota and Wyoming to northern Colorado, I found this encounter between the Tadlock wagon party and the Sioux historically improbable.

Despite its flaws, I actually enjoyed “THE WAY WEST”. Very much. I can see why the original novel won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the first place. First of all, I enjoyed how the movie opened with a montage of westbound emigrants arriving and organizing in Independence to the movie’s The plot struck me as a solid psychological drama about how a group of strangers struggled to tolerate each other, while traveling long distance during a period between four to five months in a wagon train. Knowing myself, I would probably go crazy dealing with strangers who irritated me after more than two weeks. Perhaps less. And having to deal with a ruthless and controlling personality like former U.S. Senator William Tadlock? Good Lord!

In fact, I find it interesting how the megalomaniacal Tadlock seemed to have an impact on the other major subplots in this film, one way or the other. He and the easy-going farmer Lije Evans managed to consistently clash with each other from the beginning. Evans resents his controlling style of leadership, but seemed reluctant to replace him. The former senator’s attraction toward Lije’s wife Rebecca did not help matters. In onescene, Tadlock had offered himself as a potential wife to Rebecca . . . in case Lije failed to survive the journey to Oregon. I could not decide whether to be surprised or disgusted by his suggestion. Tadlock even had an impact on the Brownie Evans-Mercy McBee romantic quagmire with John and Amanda Mack.

And yet . . . despite being such a megalomaniacal personality, I must admit that I found some of Tadlock’s decisions. For example, Lije Evans and the other wagon party members wanted to fight the Sioux, instead of giving in to the latter’s demand for the Sioux boy’s killer. I suspect that a combination of racism and braggadocio led the emigrants believe it would be better to fight the Sioux than submit one of their own to justice. Tadlock, to his credit, realized it would be wiser to give in to the Sioux’s demand. I also found myself agreeing with his order that the emigrants ditch all non-essential possession in order to lighten the load for the stock that pulled their wagons. Unfortunately, Tadlock’s anger at Evans’ stubborn refusal to give up Mrs. Evans’ floor clock spun out of control and cost him his position as the wagon train’s leader. I would expand more about the human drama found in “THE WAY WEST”. But to do so would give away the plot.

Although I had a problem with the film’s music and costume designs, I certainly had none with its cinematography. “THE WAY WEST” was shot on location in Arizona and Oregon. And I found William H. Clothier’s cinematography outstanding, thanks to its sharp and colorful photography shown in the images below:

Another aspect of “THE WAY WEST” that impressed me, proved to be the sequence for its opening credits. This sequence was basically a montage of emigrants arriving in Independence, Missouri or forming wagon trains for the westbound journey. Despite Bronislau Kaper’s forgettable score and equally forgettable theme song, I thought the sequence permeated with atmosphere and strong sense of how Independence must have been during that period in history. The sequence’s strong atmosphere benefited from Andrew V. McLeglen’s skillful direction, Otho Lovering’s editing and Robert Priestley’s set direction.

For me, the performances in “THE WAY WEST” proved to be a mixed affair. A good number of the supporting performers gave some hammy performances. Most of them portrayed minor characters. But the two hammy performances that seemed to stand out belonged to Richard Widmark as Lije Evans and Jack Elam as Preacher Weatherby. Widmark seemed as if he was trying too hard to convey Evans’ good-natured personality . . . to the point that his performance seemed forced. I did not enjoy admitting that. Mind you, Widmark had some good moments, especially in those scenes in which Lije clashed with Tadlock. Otherwise . . . I found him just a tad over-the-top for my tastes. Elam portrayed a minister named Preacher Weatherby, who had sneaked aboard one of the wagons in an effort to join the wagon train. Not only did I find his portrayal of the “hell and brimstone” minister over-the-top, but also one-dimensional. On the other hand, there was one performance that seemed to go in the complete opposite direction. I am referring to Michael Witney, who portrayed John “Johnnie” Mack, one half of the newlywed couple and the object of Mercy McBee’s desire. Witney may have avoided giving a hammy performance, but he ended up being rather wooden – at least in my eyes. Watching his performance, I found myself wondering how his character managed to generate so much emotion from both Mercy McBee and his wife, Amanda.

Thankfully, “THE WAY WEST” had its share of good and excellent performances. Ironically, two of them came from Harry Carey Jr. and Connie Sawyer. Yes, I will admit they gave hammy performances as Mr. and Mrs. McBee. But their hamminess struck me as so entertaining that I could not dismiss the performances. It seemed as if both really enjoyed themselves. “THE WAY WEST” also featured solid performances from the likes of Patric Knowles, Stubby Kaye, Katherine Justice and Eve McVeagh.

But there were also exceptional performances in “THE WAY WEST”. One came from the likes of Lola Albright, who gave a competent performances as Rebecca Evans, a woman torn between her love for Lije. I thought Michael McGreevey, who gave a very skillful performance as the Evans’ shy and lovesick son, Brownie. Sally Field revealed signs of future stardom with a great performance as the ebullient, sexual and painfully naive Mercy McBee. Robert Mitchum seemed to be the film’s backbone, thanks to his portrayal of the wagon train’s warm, yet pragmatic scout Dick Summers. I especially enjoyed his scenes with McGreevey. But if I had to give the award for the film’s best performance, it would go to Kirk Douglas for his superb portrayal of the very complex and magnetic former Senator William Tadlock. Douglas’ performance struck me as so exceptionally complex that there were times I found myself wondering whether or not I should like him or not.

What else can I say about “THE WAY WEST”? Well, the movie had its flaws. I cannot deny it. But I feel that its virtues definitely outweighed its flaws. And I think that it does not deserve the lukewarm opinions it has received over the years. Thanks to screenwriters Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann; a first-rate cast led by Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum; and excellent direction from Andrew V. McLaglen; I believe “THE WAY WEST” is a lot better than it is reputed to be.

Favorite Episodes of “THE GREAT” Season One (2020)

Below are images from Season One of the Hulu series, “THE GREAT”. Created by Tony McNamara, the series starred Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult as Empress Catherine and Emperor Peter III of Russia:

FAVORITE EPISODES OF “THE GREAT” SEASON ONE (2020)

1. (1.08) “Meatballs at the Dacha” – Empress Catherine’s political abilities are tested when she is given an opportunity to accompany Emperor Peter and General Velementov abroad to meet the King and Queen of Sweden.

2. (1.06) “Parachute” – After his near-death experience with a poison attempt, Peter is now open to Catherine’s progressive ideas and wants to focus on an heir. Courtier Orlo tries to figure out who had poisoned Peter and ends up faces demons of his own.

3. (1.09) “Love Hurts” – While Catherine continues to gather more supporters for her coup against Peter, a dead body is discovered. Peter decides to torture everyone at court to find the murderous traitors.

4. (1.05) “War and Vomit” – After Peter is nearly killed by the jealous husband of his mistress via poison, Catherine closer to either becoming sole ruler of Russia or being executed.

5. (1.04) “Moscow Mule” – While Catherine deals with the hostility from the ladies of the court over rumors about her virginity, Peter reluctantly deal with finding a new leader of the Russian Orthodox Church following the death of the old one.

“WHISPERING SMITH” (1948) Review

“WHISPERING SMITH” (1948) Review

For years, I had assumed that Alan Ladd starred in only three Westerns – one of them being the acclaimed 1953 movie, “SHANE”. Yet, while perusing his filmography, I discovered that he had either starred or co-starred in a good number of “oaters”. One of them was the 1948 film, “WHISPERING SMITH”.

Based upon Frank H. Spearman’s 1906 novel, “WHISPERING SMITH” told the story of a railroad detective named Luke “Whispering” Smith who is assigned to investigate a series of train robberies in late 19th century Wyoming Territory. However, the case becomes personal for Luke when his oldest friend, a local rancher and railroad employee named Murray Sinclair becomes involved with the gang responsible for the robberies.

Superficially, “WHISPERING SMITH” seemed like the typical Western made by Hollywood studios during the studio era. If I have to be honest with myself, Westerns with any real depth seemed rare to me during the so-called “Golden Age of Hollywood” and now. I seriously doubt that any movie critic would regard “WHISPERING SMITH” as something unique. The movie possessed traits one could easily find in mediocre Westerns and a few really good ones:

*Outlaw gang robbing either locals or businesses that dominate the neighborhood

*Corrupt local businessman or rancher leading the outlaws

*Rancher or businessman’s main henchman, who happens to be a proficient killer

*Lawman assigned to hunt down outlaws

*Posse chases outlaw around neighborhood/county

Yes, “WHISPERING SMITH” possessed these traits. It also possessed a first-rate dramatic narrative that elevated the movie from the usual Western tropes – namely the love triangle between Luke Smith, his best friend Murray Sinclair and Murray’s wife Miriam Sinclair. This triangle was set five years in the past when Miriam, frustrated by Luke’s reluctance to propose marriage to her, married Murray. The latter never realized that Luke and Miriam still harbored lingering romantic feelings toward each other . . . until the film’s midway point.

Between his resentment toward Luke and Miriam, and being fired by his railroad boss George St. Cloud – whom he disliked – Murray made a choice that proved to be disastrous for his marriage and his friendship with Luke. The developing estrangement between Luke and Murray also proved to be difficult for the former as well. This was especially apparent in the film’s second half of the film. Due to his close friendship with Murray; Luke not only struggled and failed to save the other man’s job, but also convince the latter to give up his new alliance with the main villain, rancher Barney Rebstock.

“WHISPERING SMITH” not only benefited from this complex narrative regarding the Luke-Miriam-Murray relationship, but also the fine performances from its cast. Once again, Alan Ladd proved he was a better actor than many believed he was in his performance of the leading character, Luke Smith. What made Ladd’s performance first-rate his ability to not only convey Luke’s contrasting personality traits – soft-spoken, yet friendly demeanor and an intelligent ruthlessness – but also his varying array of emotions with a fluidity that still impress me to this day. Another superb performance came from Robert Preston, who portrayed Luke’s best friend Murray Sinclair. Superficially, Murray came off as a one-note personality. But thanks to Preston’s performance, Murray proved to a complicated character that transformed from a genial, yet sometimes pushy man to an embittered one, who had allowed his bullheadedness and temper to lead him to a bad choice. Brenda Marshall’s portrayal of Miriam Sinclair also struck me as equally impressive. Her Miriam proved to be an emotional and complicated woman, who struggled to repress her lingering feelings for Luke and determined to save Murray and her marriage. Marshall conveyed these aspects of Miriam’s emotional state in two excellent scenes. One of them featured her never ending frustration and resentment toward Luke’s failure to propose marriage all those years ago. And other featured a quarrel between Miriam and Murray in which she finally convinced him to sell their ranch and move away from the neighborhood . . . and Barney Rebstock’s orbit.

There were other performances I enjoyed. One of them came from William Demarest, who gave an emotional, yet satisfying portrayal of Bill Dansing, a railroad employee who had been friends of Luke and Murray for years and served as their father figure. Donald Crisp gave an amusing and entertaining performance as Barney Rebstock, the rancher who hid his criminal and ruthless behavior behind a genial mask. Another came from John Eldredge, whose portrayal of George McCloud, the railroad official who clashed with Murray, struck me as subtle and intelligent. I also enjoyed the solid performances from the likes of Fay Holden, Murray Vye, Ward Wood and Will Wright.

I have to say a word about Ray Rennahan’s cinematography. What can I say? I thought it was beautiful looking. Rennahan, who had won an Academy Award for his work in 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”, also shot “WHISPERING SMITH” in Technicolor. I have seen other films shot in Technicolor that struck me as rather garish. I cannot say the same about “WHISPERING SMITH”. I found the photography sharp and colorful, without being garish, as shown in the image below:

Although I found myself impressed by the narrative regarding Luke’s relationship with the Sinclairs, I cannot disregard some of the film’s action sequences. There were two that really impressed me. One proved to the final sequence that featured the posse chasing Murray, Rebstock and the latter’s gang around the countryside following a train robbery. Sure, I thought it was an unoriginal trope to use in a Western. But I thought it was exciting and well shot by director Leslie Fenton. However, I was more impressed by Fenton’s work in the sequence that featured Luke’s encounter with the Barton boys – members of Rebstock’s gang – at a rail junction in the rain. It featured good action, good acting and great editing by Archie Marshek.

As much as I enjoyed “WHISPERING SMITH”, there are some aspects of it that I found unappealing. One of them proved to be actor Frank Faylen’s portrayal of henchman Whitey DuSang. I realize that Faylen was a first-rate actor. I have seen him in other productions. But . . . I found his portrayal of DuSang rather one-dimensional. Faylen spent most of the film hovering around Donald Crisp with his arms folded and staring at people with squinting eyes. If this was his way of looking intimidating, I did not buy it. I do know whether to blame Faylen, the director Fenton, screenwriters Frank Butler and Karl Kamb or Frank Spearman’s portrayal of the character in his novel. Another major problem I had with “WHISPERING SMITH” proved to be Mary Kay Dodson’s costume designs for the female characters. Exactly what was this film’s setting? Some of Dodson’s costumes seemed to indicate the 1880s. And some of her costumes – especially for Brenda Marshall – seemed to indicate the 1890s. Nor did it help that the women’s hairstyles seemed to reflect the late 1940s.

Despite my quibbles with Frank Faylen and Mary Kay Dodson’s costume designs, I enjoyed “WHISPERING SMITH” very much. Not only does it happen to be one of my favorite films starring Alan Ladd, I actually like it more than his more famous film, “SHANE”. I am certain that many would find this sacrilegious. However, thanks to Leslie Fenton’s direction, a screenplay that conveyed a complex love triangle and excellent performances from a cast led by Ladd, Robert Preston and Brenda Marshall; I cannot help how I feel.

Five Favorite Episodes of “GAME OF THRONES” Season Three (2013)

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from Season Three of “GAME OF THRONES”, HBO’s adaptation of the first half of George R. R. Martin’s 2000 novel from his A Song of Ice and Fire series, “A Storm of Swords”. The series was created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss:

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “GAME OF THRONES” SEASON THREE (2013)

1. (3.09) “The Rains of Castamere” – Robb Stark, his mother Catelyn and their entourage arrive at the Twins for the wedding of Robb’s Uncle Edmure Tully to one of Walder Frey’s daughter. Jon Stark is put to the test by the Freefolk to see where his loyalties truly lie. Daenerys Targaryen plans to invade the Essos city of Yunkai.

2. (3.04) “And Now His Watch Is Ended” – Jaime Lannister mopes over his hand that was chopped off by Stark bannerman Roose Bolton’s man-at-arms, Locke. Jaime’s sister, Queen Cersei is growing uncomfortable with the her family’s new allies, the Tyrells. The Night’s Watch is growing impatient with its Freefolk ally, Craster. Daenerys buys the Unsullied army.

3. (3.07) “The Bear and the Fair Maiden” – Jon and his Freefolk companions travel south of the Wall. Robb’s wife, Talisa Maegyr Stark, reveals that she is pregnant. Arya Stark runs away from the Brotherhood. Daenerys arrives at Yunkai. Jaime is forced to leave his traveling companion/captor Brienne of Tarth behind at Harrenhal by Bolton.

4. (3.10) “Mhysa” – Bran Stark and his companions travel north beyond the Wall. Crow Sam Tarly and Craster’s wife/daughter Gilly returns to Castle Black. Jon tries to escape from Ygritte and his other Freefolk compansion. Jaime and Brienne return to King’s Landing. The Night’s Watch asks for help from Stannis Barantheon and his army. In Essos, the freed Yunkai slaves receive Daenerys as their “mother”.

5. (3.03) “Walk of Punishment” – Robb and Catelyn arrive at Riverrun for the funeral of the latter’s father, Lord Hoster Tully. Hand of the King Tywin Lannister names younger son Tyrion as the new Master of Coin. The Night’s Watch returns to Craster’s Keep. Brienne and Jaime are taken prisoner by Locke and his men. Daenerys barters for the 8,000 Unsullied warriors and the translator Missandei in exchange for one of her dragons.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1820s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set during the 1820s:

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1820s

1. “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996) – Tara Fitzgerald starred in this superb 1996 adaptation of Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel. Directed by Mike Barker, the three-part miniseries co-starred Toby Jones and Rupert Graves.

2. “Wives and Daughters” (1999) – Andrew Davies adapted and Nicholas Renton directed this excellent adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1865 novel (her last one). The four-part miniseries starred Justine Waddell, Keeley Hawes and Francesca Annis.

3. “Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in this television movie about a Detroit teenager in 1991, who finds himself transported to 1822 South Carolina as a slave and swept up in Denmark Velsey’s failed rebellion in Charleston. Directed by Roy Campanella II, the television movie starred Phil Lewis, Carl Lumbly and Moses Gunn.

4. “Shaka Zulu” (1986) – William C. Faure directed this adaptation of Joshua Sinclair’s 1985 novel about the life of King Shaka of the Zulus. Henry Cele, Edward Fox and Robert Powell starred in this ten-part miniseries.

5. “Little Dorrit” (2008) – Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen starred in this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1855-57 novel about a young woman who struggles to earn money for her family and look after her proud father, an inmate of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. The fourteen-part miniseries was adapted by Andrew Davies.

6. “A House Divided: Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion” (1982) – Yaphet Kotto starred as Denmark Vessey in this television production about the latter’s attempt to start a slave rebellion in 1822 Denmark. Stan Lathan directed.

7. “Scarlet and Black” (1993) – Ewan McGregor starred in this adaptation of Stendhal’s 1830 novel, “The Red and the Black”. Directed by Ben Bolt, this three-part miniseries co-starred Rachel Weisz and Alice Kriege.

8. “Jamaica Inn” (2014) – Jessica Brown Findlay starred in this television adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1936 novel. Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, the three-part miniseries co-starred Matthew McNulty and Sean Harris.

9. “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” (2001) – James D’Arcy starred in this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1838-39 novel, “Nicholas Nickleby”. Stephen Whittaker directed this television movie.

“LITTLE WOMEN” (2019) Review

“LITTLE WOMEN” (2019) Review

Ever since its release in movie theaters back in December 2019, many moviegoers have been in rapture over “LITTLE WOMEN”, filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel. The movie did acquire several acclaims, including Oscar nominations for two of the film’s actresses, Best Adapted Screenplay and an actual Oscar for costume design. I never got the chance to see it in theaters. I finally managed to see it on the HULU streaming service.

Anyone familiar with Alcott’s novel knows that it conveyed the tale of four sisters from a Massachusetts family and their development from adolescence and childhood to adulthood during the 1860s. The first half of Alcott’s tale covered the March sisters’ experiences during the U.S. Civil War. In fact, Alcott had based the March family on herself and her three sisters. Unlike previous adaptations, Gerwig incorporated a nonlinear timeline for this version of “LITTLE WOMEN”.

There were aspects of “LITTLE WOMEN” I truly admired. I did enjoy most of the performances. Or some of them. I thought Saoirse Ronan gave an excellent performance as the movie’s leading character Josephine “Jo” March. I thought she did a pretty good job of recapturing Jo’s extroverted personality and artistic ambitions. I do wish that Gerwig had allowed Jo to convey some of the less pleasant sides to her personality. Do I believe she deserved her Oscar nomination? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Although I thought she gave an excellent performance, I do not know if I would have considered her for an acting nomination.

But I was more than impressed by Eliza Scanlen, who portrayed third sister Elizabeth “Beth” March. Although her story more or less played out in a series of vignettes that switched back and forth between the period in which she first caught the scarlet fever and her death a few years later; Scanlen did a superb job in recapturing the pathos and barely submerged emotions of Beth’s fate. It seemed a pity that she had failed to acquire any acting nominations. One last performance that really impressed me came from Meryl Streep. I have always regarded the temperamental Aunt March as a difficult role for any actress. And although I do not regard Streep’s interpretation of the aging matriarch as the best I have seen, I must admit that for me, she gave one of the best performances in the film. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Bob Odenkirk and Florence Pugh, who also received an Oscar nomination for her performance as the youngest March sister, Amy. About the latter . . . I really admired her portrayal of the older Amy March. But I found her performance as the younger Amy rather exaggerated. And a part of me cannot help but wonder why she had received an Oscar nomination in the first place.

Jacqueline Durran won the film’s only Academy Award – namely for Best Costume Design. Did she deserve it? I honestly do not believe she did. I did enjoy some of her designs, especially for the older Amy March, as shown below:

I found the costumes worn by Pugh, Streep and many extras in the Paris sequences very attractive and an elegant expression of fashion from the late 1860s. Otherwise, I found Durran’s costumes for this film rather questionable. I realize both she and Gerwig were attempting to portray the March family as some kind of 19th century version of “hippies”. But even non-traditional types like the Marches would not wear their clothing in such a slap-dash manner with petticoat hems hanging below the skirts, along with bloomers showing, cuts and styles in clothing that almost seemed anachronistic, and wearing no corsets. The latter would be the equivalent of not wearing bras underneath one’s clothing in the 20th and 21st centuries. Someone had pointed out that many of today’s costume designers try to put a “modern twist” to their work in period dramas in order to appeal to modern moviegoers and television viewers. I really wish they would not. The attempt tends to come off as lazy costuming in my eyes. And this tactic usually draws a good deal of criticism from fans of period dramas. So . . . how on earth did Durran win an Oscar for her work in the first place?

I understand that “LITTLE WOMEN” was filmed in various locations around Massachusetts, including Boston and Cambridge. A part of me felt a sense of satisfaction by this news, considering the story’s setting of Concord, Massachusetts. I was surprised to learn that even the Paris sequences were filmed in Ipswich, Massachusetts. However, I must admit that I was not particularly blown away by Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography. Then again, I can say that for just about every adaptation of Alcott’s novel I have ever seen.

There were scenes from “LITTLE WOMEN” that I found memorable. Those include Jo March’s initial meeting with her publisher Mr. Dashwood; Amy March’s conflict with Theodore “Laurie” Laurence over his behavior in Paris; Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s marriage proposal, and especially the montage featuring Beth March’s bout with scarlet fever and its consequences. However . . . I had some problems with Gerwig’s screenplay.

As I have stated earlier, “LITTLE WOMEN” is not the first movie I have seen that utilized the non-linear plot technique. I have seen at least two adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. Two more famous examples of this plot device were the 1995 film, “12 MONKEYS” and two of Christopher Nolan’s movies – 2000’s “MEMENTO” and 2017’s “DUNKIRK”. How can I put this? I feel that Greta Gerwig’s use of non-linear writing had failed the film’s narrative. It simply did not work for me. Except for the brilliant montage featuring Beth’s fate, it seemed as if Gerwig’s writing had scattered all over the place without any real semblance of following Alcott’s plot. If I had not been already familiar with Alcott’s story, I would have found “LITTLE WOMEN” totally confusing.

I also feel that because of Gerwig’s use of the non-linear technique, she managed to inflict a little damage on Alcott’s plot. Despite the excellent scene featuring Laurie’s marriage proposal, I felt that Gerwig had robbed the development of his relationship with Jo. I also believe that Gerwig had diminished Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer. In the film, Bhaer had expressed harsh criticism of Jo’s earlier writing . . . without explaining his opinion. But he never added that Jo had the potential to write better stories than her usual melodrama crap. Why did Gerwig deleted this aspect of Professor Bhaer’s criticism? In order to make him look bad? To set up the idea of Jo ending the story as a single woman, because that was Alcott’s original intent? Did Gerwig consider the original version of this scene a detriment to feminist empowerment? I am also confused as to why Gerwig allowed the March family to push her into considering Professor Bhaer as a potential mate for Jo? This never happened in the novel. Jo had come to her decision to marry the professor on her own perogative. She did not have to be pushed into this decision. Come to think of it, exactly how did Jo’s fate end in the movie? I am confused. Did she marry Bhaer after rushing to the train station in order to stop him from leaving for California? Or did she remain single? Whatever.

And why on earth did she position Amy and Laurie’s first meeting after the former’s hand had been caned by her school teacher? Gerwig had transformed an incident that had taught Amy a lesson about self-respect and generated the Marches’ righteous anger against a schoolteacher’s abuse to one of comic relief and a cute rom.com meet for Amy and Laurie. What the hell? Someone had once complained that Gerwig may have assumed that everyone was familiar with Alcott’s story when she wrote this screenplay. And I agree with that person. Earlier I had questioned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ decision to award the Best Costume Design statuette to Jacqueline Durran and nominate Florence Pugh for Best Supporting Actress. But I also have to question the organization’s decision to nominate Gerwig’s writing for Best Adapted Screenplay. I honestly believe she did not deserve it.

There were aspects of “LITTLE WOMEN” that I found admirable. I was certainly impressed by some of the film’s dramatic moments. And there were a handful of performances from the likes of Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen and Meryl Streep that truly impressed me. But I cannot deny that the other members of the cast gave either first-rate or solid performances. In the end, I did not like the movie.

I believe “LITTLE WOMEN” should have never been nominated for Best Picture. Greta Gerwig’s use of the nonlinear technique did not serve Louisa May Alcott’s plot very well. If I had not been familiar with the novel’s plot, I would have found this movie confusing. Aside from Ronan’s Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, I feel that the other nominations and Best Costume Design win were undeserved. And a part of me feels a sense of relief that Gerwig had never received a nomination for Best Director.

Ranking of “HIS DARK MATERIALS” Season One (2019) Episodes

Below is my ranking of the Season One episodes of “HIS DARK MATERIALS”, HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s 1995 novel, “The Golden Compass” aka “Northern Lights” and the first part of his 1997 novel, “The Subtle Knife”. Written by Jack Thorne, the series stars Dafne Keen:

RANKING OF “HIS DARK MATERIALS” SEASON ONE (2019) Episodes

1. (1.02) “The Idea of North” – Orphan Lyra Belacqua starts a new life in London with the charming socialite, Mrs. Marisa Coulter; determined to find her missing friend, Roger Parslow. The Gyptians continue searching for their missing children and the elusive Gobblers, a group of government sanctioned child snatchers.

2. (1.06) “The Daemon-Cages” – Lyra discovers the horrific truth behind the Gobblers’ activities at a science station in the North called Bolvangar.

3. (1.08) “Betrayal” – As the Magesterium, a religious-political body, closes in; Lyra learns more about Lord Asriel’s rebellion. But her assistance to him comes at a great personal cost.

4. (1.01) “Lyra’s Jordan” – Lyra’s world at Jordan College in Oxford, is turned upside-down by the arrival of her long-absent uncle Lord Asriel from the North. Meanwhile, she meets the glamorous Mrs. Coulter for the first time.

5. (1.04) “Armour” – As Lyra and the Gyptians head up North, she searches for allies in her search for Lord Asriel. With the help of a balloonist named Lee Scoresby, she comes across an armored bear named Iorek Byrnison at a port town in Svalbard.

6. (1.03) “Spies” – Lyra is rescued from the clutches of the Gobblers by the Gyptians, who helps her piece together more about her past and keep her safe from the Magisterium.

7. (1.07) “Fight to the Death” – Separated from her friends and captured by the armoured bears ruled the usurper king Iofur Raknison, Lyra must use all of her methods of deception to thwart him in order to be rescued by Iorek Byrnison, the true king. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter plots her next move.

8. (1.05) “The Lost Boy” – On their journey to the Bolvangar Station, Lyra and the Gyptians finally discover what the Gobblers have been doing to the missing children. In the alternate World, an adolescent named Will Parry and his mentally ill mother Elaine are being stalked by Magisterium official Lord Carlo Boreal, who seeks Will’s father, a missing explorer named John Parry.

“Clams Casino”

Below is an article about a dish known as Clams Casino:

“CLAMS CASINO”

I have been familiar with a good number of appetizers in my time. But for the likes of me, I have never heard of one known as Clams Casino. What attracted my attention to this particular dish? To be honest, I was reading a chapter in a cookbook about American appetizers, when a passage about Clams Casino caught my eye.

Clams Casino, as I had earlier pointed out, is an appetizer that originated in one of the New England states. One serving basically consists of a littleneck or cherrystone clam cooked with breadcrumbs, bacon, green peppers, butter and garlic. Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, white wine, lemon juice, shallots or onion are also used to season each clam. Tabasco sauce is sometimes added. And parsley is sometimes used as a garnish.

The clams, bacon, and other ingredients are cooked in various ways depending on the recipe. The cooked clams and bacon are placed on the half shells of clams. Then the breadcrumbs are sprinkled on top before the clams are either baked or broiled to a golden brown. There are some variations to Clams Casino. As earlier pointed out, the clams are either baked or broiled. But the constant ingredient to the dish is bacon, which is regarded as a key factor to its success. Some chefs recommend using smoked bacon for its salty flavor. While others simply advocate using bacon that is not smoked.

The origin of Clams Casino seemed to be shrouded in legend. Many believe the dish was created in 1917, in the Little Casino in Narragansett, Rhode Island. A New York socialite named Mrs. Paran Stevens wanted something for her guests at Little Casino. According to Good Housekeeping Great American Classics, Little Casino’s maître d’hôtel, Julius Keller, was the one responsible for creating the dish on Mrs. Stevens’ behalf. The latter named the dish after the hotel and word of the dish, along with its popularity, eventually spread across the United States. New Orleans residents substituted the clams with oysters, since the latter was prevalent in Southern Louisiana.

Clams casino remains a very popular dish in Rhode Island and appears on the menus of many restaurants throughout the state. In his 2003 cookbook, “American Dish: 100 Recipes from Ten Delicious Decades”, author Merrill Shindler wrote that if a restaurant wanted to become note during the early 20th century, it would provide a dish that involved baking shellfish. This is why dishes like Clams Casino and Oysters Rockefeller became among the survivors of the shellfish fad of that period. The dish has become very popular with Italian-Americans and is permanently featured on the menus of nearly every trattoria in Manhatttan’s Little Italy. In fact, Clams Casino is often served at Italian festivals and during the holidays in the country.

Here is a recipe for Clams Casino from the AllRecipes.com website:

Ingredients

24 large clams
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup minced onion
Large White Onion
1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper
2 minced garlic cloves
1 cup dried bread crumbs
4 slices bacon
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons dried parsley
1/4 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons olive oil

Preparation

*In a small skillet, cook bacon until crisp over medium heat. Crumble, and set aside.

*Wash clams. Place on a baking sheet. Heat in a preheated 350 degree F (175 degree C) oven for 1 to 2 minutes, or until clams open. Discard any that do not open. Remove meat from shells. Chop, and set aside.

*Add 2 tablespoons oil and butter to a small skillet, and place pan over medium heat. Add onion, pepper, and garlic; saute until tender. Remove from heat, and cool.

*In a medium bowl, combine bread crumbs, bacon, oregano, cheese, sauteed vegetables, and chopped clams. Mix well.

*Fill clam shells with mixture, and place on baking sheet. Sprinkle with parsley and paprika. Drizzle with olive oil.

*Bake at 450 degrees F (230 degrees C) for 7 minutes.

*Serve.